SA could introduce a total ban on travellers from Europe, order sports events to be held in empty stadiums and limit mass gatherings to 1,000 people if an emergency cabinet meeting today imposes expected drastic measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
The cabinet meeting takes place amid an unprecedented shutdown of mass activities across the world as the coronavirus death toll topped 5,000. Governments sprang into action as markets plunged. Sports events and mass gatherings were cancelled, famous landmarks were shut and travel bans imposed.
In SA, where the 38th case of coronavirus was detected this week, the cabinet is mulling a limit on mass gatherings. Such a move would affect especially the Zion Christian Church pilgrimage, which attracts millions of worshippers to Moria in Limpopo over Easter. Sports matches — including football, rugby and cricket — could also be played in closed stadiums.
The measures are likely to harm the economy, with tourism facing a hammering.
The Sunday Times understands that a ministerial committee directed to deal with the government’s response is set to propose a travel ban to SA on countries that have not controlled infection rates.
Highly placed insiders said Italy, which has reported 17,000 cases and more than 1,200 deaths, and Iran, where the death toll has topped 500, would most likely be the first countries on the banning list.
A total ban of all travellers from Europe is also on the table, but China — the origin of the virus, and the country with the highest infection and death rates — may be spared because it has been able to control infections, the cabinet will be told.
The committee, led by health minister Zweli Mkhize, will tell the cabinet that the World Health Organisation regards travel bans and quarantines as the only way to contain the spread of the virus.
The cabinet will consider a recommendation that South Africans returning from highrisk countries be in quarantine for 14 days.
The cabinet is also expected to decide how to restrict public gatherings to 1,000 people. Religious gatherings draw huge crowds and can spread of the virus quickly, as happened in South Korea.
Cabinet spokesperson Jackson Mthembu said President Cyril Ramaphosa would consult religious leaders.
On Wednesday, Ramaphosa told cabinet colleagues to come with comprehensive reports on the impact of Covid-19 on all sectors of the economy. He also wants to know how education and public health will be affected.
Tourism minister Mmamoloko KubayiNgubane presented a report to the committee. She said yesterday that an assessment of the pandemic’s effects had drastically changed in the course of a week.
“Yes, you can say it is a bloodbath for the tourism sector,” she said.
Kubayi-Ngubane met industry representatives on Monday when she was told that SA was not badly affected by travel cancellations. By Friday, the situation had completely changed, she said.
“On Monday, we didn’t have many events cancelled. But by Friday all major events happening in SA were cancelled. Some in the sector reported zero cancellations on Monday but by Friday had over 50% cancellations [of reservations],” she said.
Tshwane University of Technology tourism expert Unathi Henama said: “The projections are that if the coronavirus outreach continues, it may lead to a 15% decline in tourism in SA, considering that both Italy and China are the top 10 of international source markets to the country.”
South African Tourism CEO Sisa Ntshona said the most affected area was in conferencing events, “where people in large numbers congregate over a number of days and are within close proximity to each other”.
“Globally, we have seen conferences being cancelled and this has nothing to do with the venue or the destination. It’s rather delegates attending are just not comfortable to be in a room with other delegates whom they don’t know, or where they are coming from. Different governments have different views on conferences and the virus,” he said.
Sports, arts & culture minister Nathi Mthethwa said he met the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee on Friday and asked officials to consider the possibility of holding sports events
behind closed doors or in closed stadiums.
“We see what is happening in Europe … if we have to play, let’s consider playing without spectators.” He said the same would apply to religious and cultural activities.
While the developed countries draw on ample national resources to fight the virus, poorer countries are likely to be hardest hit, especially in Africa.
However, a report by the UN Economic Commission for Africa presented in Addis Ababa on Friday noted that out of the 118,000 known cases of the coronavirus, fewer than 50 were in Africa, but the economic impact was disproportionate.
Growth across the continent will likely be affected, dropping from 3.2% to 1.8%
The UN body noted that Africa’s largest economies would face fiscal pressures “making it impossible to respond to the Covid-19 crises”.
“There will be high external dependence on pharmaceuticals because all African countries are net importers of medical and pharmaceutical products,” the report said.
As events across SA were cancelled this week, the Comrades Marathon Association is to hold a special board meeting this week to discuss the possible consequences for the world’s biggest ultra-marathon.
Eight people from KwaZulu-Natal, the marathon’s host province, have been infected.
The race, scheduled to be run on June 14 from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, usually attracts about 27,000 runners.
“If the pandemic should expand as it has done overseas, then obviously we have to take directions from authorities. We will have to abide by that,” said Cheryl Winn, head of the association.
Among the major international events in SA that have been cancelled are the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, which was postponed “for the foreseeable future” on Friday “as a public health precautionary measure”, organisers espAfrika said.
Durban’s Festival of Chariots, a music and dance event, usually held over Easter, has also been postponed to later in the year.
The week-long Cape Epic cycle race, which was to have started today, was cancelled on Friday.
Cricket SA and the Board of Control for Cricket in India cancelled the series of oneday internationals between the two countries. The series was meant to be played this week.
Graduations at the universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch have also been postponed, as has tomorrow’s installation of Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe as UCT chancellor.
Hotels around the country are on high alert and taking precautions.
On Friday, US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, saying the US coronavirus situation could worsen and “the next eight weeks are critical”. This week, Trump announced travel restrictions, blocking entry to the US of most people from continental Europe.
In Iran, which has been hard hit, security forces will empty the streets in cities across the country, state television reported. The death toll in Iran rose from 85 to 514 between Thursday and Friday while total infections increased by more than 1,000 cases to 11,364.
Spain declared a state of emergency, shutting shops, bars and restaurants and cancelling Easter parades as it prepared for a 15-day state of emergency. The number of infections in that country, where 120 people have died, rose to 4,231 on Friday, up about 1,000 cases from Thursday.
In Germany, where five people have died, there were 3,072 people infected with Covid19 by Friday, an increase of 671 over the previous 24 hours.
Countries that previously had no infections have now reported them, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Guinea, bringing to 18 the number of African states with reported cases. Namibia announced that it was immediately suspending travel to and from Qatar, Ethiopia and Germany for 30 days, after the country confirmed its first cases of coronavirus.
– Sunday Times